Thursday, August 10, 2006

Doin' It For Charidee

It's the "Community Shield" this weekend. Yet another contender for the award for Most Pointless Match Of The Season. One always assumes that it is, and always has been, the pre-season curtain-raiser between the FA Cup winners and the League champions, but this has only been the case since 1974. Prior to that, it was a much more informal affair. For the first few years of it's existence, it clung almost charmingly to the idea of professionals and amateurs being distinct from each other. The first match, in 1908, pitted the Football League Champions, Manchester United, against the amateur Southern League Champions, Queens Park Rangers. United were regulars in the first few finals. In 1911, they beat Swindon 8-4. The pros vs amateurs theme continued until 1930, at which point it switched to the format that we are still used to now, of Cup winners against League champions. There were exceptions to this, such as in 1950, when the England World Cup team took on a touring Canadian team. Fat load of good it did them: England, of course, went on to lose against the USA in Belo Horizonte that summer.

Although now a more traditional competition, the Charity Shield was still capable of springing the occasional surprise. In 1963, Everton thrashed Manchester United 4-0. In 1967, Pat Jennings scored directly from a drop-kick for Spurs against Manchester United, and a year later Manchester City put six past West Bromwich Albion. By this time, the match was regularly held at the home of the League champions, but by 1974, it had been overhauled and given a place at Wembley.

The 1974 Charity Shield is probably the most famous Charity Shield of them all. It marked Brian Clough's first competitive match as Don Revie's replacement at Leeds, and Bill Shankly's last in charge of Liverpool. When Clough tried to engage Shankly in a bit of friendly conversation in the tunnel before the match, Shankly famously blanked him. A month later, Clough's infamous 42 day spell at Elland Road would be over. Most famously of all though, Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner were both sent off for fighting. It would make for a flurry of news headlines even now, but when one takes into consideration the fact that in the 1970s, it was more or less impossible to get sent off (a fact that made the very existence of the likes of Bremner possible), it was an absolute scandal. Both players received lengthy suspensions. The match finished 1-1, and with the scores level at 5-5 in a penalty shoot-out Leeds sent their goalkeeper David Harvey up to take one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he punted the ball about twenty yards over the crossbar. Liverpool, spoilsports that they are, chose not to let Ray Clemence have a go: instead, the Footballer Of The Year Ian Callaghan scored to win them the match. Was this the start of Leeds' long decline? Probably not, but it would be nice to think that it was.

The FA's website glosses neatly over the changing of its name to the "Community Shield", by describing it as "re-branding". The truth - that it was discovered that none of the money raised by it had been going to charity for some time - was presumably a little hard to stomach. This Sunday will probably see Chelsea and Liverpool going at each other for 120 minutes, with the losers declaring afterwards that "it doesn't really matter anyway". Considering the way Chelsea have played in their last two or three friendlies, they might be more likely to be pedalling the excuses come Sunday tea-time. Like many of these lesser trophies, the "Community" Shield could probably do with some sprucing up, so here are five quick suggestions to make it a bit more exciting:

1. Call it the "Charity Shield" again, and give all of the money raised from it (TV money, gate receipts, a proportion of the players' wages for that week, Craig Bellamy's bar tab - it would easily make seven figures) to charity. Radical, huh?

2. Draw two teams from outside the top six in the Premiership and the First Division at random to play in it.

3. (And this is the cunning bit) Offer the winners the following year's Intertoto Cup place.

4. Use it to experiment with "controversial" rule changes: video referees, taking off a player per team in extra-time every five minutes, buzzers inside the goals, remote-controlled robot players operated by Jimmy Hill & Jimmy Saville - you know the sort of thing.

5. No fireworks, streamers or podiums made of balsa wood. Just a marching band. Ooh, and they could cover the pitch in sawdust, like they used to when the League Cup final used to be held a week or so after The Horse Of The Year Show.

See, the trouble is... I'm too damn radical to ever get a job working for the FA.


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